Breaking Habits: Is Your Personality Getting In The Way Of Your Goals?

Habit expert Gretchen Rubin says there are four categories of people in this world. She explains to MEG WALKER why figuring out which one you belong to is the first step to finding fulfilment.

Eight years ago, Gretchen Rubin had us all making an attempt at improving our lives, one self-help tip at a time. It was her bestseller, The Happiness Project, that showed how she did just that, by outlining the steps she took over 12 months, trying out various ways to shake up her daily routine in the aim of finding true contentment in the everyday. But many of us faltered at the second hurdle. It was a rather nice idea for some, but it just wasn't for the rest of us.

?People kept saying to me, ?but how did you get yourself to do all those things, to keep those resolutions?? And I'd say, ?Well, I knew they would make me happier.? And they'd just repeat, ?but how did you get yourself to do them?? And I was just so puzzled by this question. I mean... what more do you need??

You see, Gretchen Rubin is an Upholder. This is one of the four ?tendencies? that she believes we all fall into. Her tendencies are about how we respond to expectations - inner expectations, and outer expectations. Or in other words, how you respond to goals you set for yourself, and those set by others (your boss, colleagues, children, husband, mother, sister... whoever is important in your world). An Upholder, she says, responds to both inner and outer expectations, so Rubin has no problem keeping New Year's resolutions, or goals she's in fact set for herself for an entire year (including writing a bestseller). And yes, there are many others like her. But why is it that many of us just can't find it in ourselves to keep such goals? Here, Rubin explains her four tendencies and suggests how we can all work with our own, and those of others, to achieve our goals (as best we can)...



Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations - they meet the work deadline, they keep the New Year's resolution, without much fuss. They want to know what's expected of them, but their expectations of themselves are just as important. For the Upholder, it's most important to really understand what it is they want to do. They tend to like to-do lists, scheduling, to know what's expected of them... because they like to meet those expectations. They don't need a lot of supervision or oversight, but they just need to know what it is you want to get done. The Upholder's strengths are they're self-directed, they don't need anybody watching over their shoulder, if they want to do something for themselves, they're good at sticking to it. The flip side is that sometimes the Upholder can appear rigid to others or inflexible; it can be hard for them to manage situations where it's unclear what the expectations are; they can sometimes be judgmental of others because they have an easy time executing and don't understand why others struggle. They can also experience what I call ?tightening? which is when the walls get tighter on you, like if, during a busy time, an Upholder started coming into work early to get on top of deadlines, and once that busy period ended, felt they had to continue coming in early.

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Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. So this is someone who would never miss a deadline at work, but when they try to go running on their own, they struggle. For Obligers, it's all about outer accountability. If someone says to an Obliger, ?I'd love to get a report on that, when you have some time.? That's not going to work because there's no expectation - it's too open-ended, there's no deadline, no supervision. An Obliger would be wise to say, ?When do you want it by?? and set a date that you both agree on. Obligers are the rock of the world; they're terrific to work with, they make great bosses and team members because they're good at meeting outer expectations, they'll go the extra mile, but... there is a striking pattern with Obligers, where if they feel they're being taken advantage of, or standards are unrealistically high, instead of speaking up or going against it, they fall into Obliger rebellion, where they'll have met that expectation, but then suddenly snap. Many Obligers have mentioned to me that they'll sit in their car in order to be deliberately late for work, and it can be small like that or not answering someone's email, or it can be big like, ?I'm leaving this place; I'm done.? And so you can lose a very valuable employee this way, so it's something you want to be aware of.


Questioners question all expectations. They'll do something if they think it makes sense, so they don't like anything that's arbitrary, inefficient, or irrational. So they'll meet inner expectations - if an expectation meets their standards and makes sense to them, they'll do it, and if it doesn't, they'll refuse. For Questioners, it's very important to have reasons, so if you find a Questioner is struggling to do something, it's probably because it seems stupid to them. If you're a Questioner and trying to get yourself to do something, try and think of your own reasons for doing it - ie, ?My boss wants me to do something and I think it's a waste of time, but my own reason for doing this is to gain my boss? respect.? Or, maybe your bonus, pay rise or promotion is riding on your ability to accomplish this task. Then there is a justification. Questioners are amazing to have at work because they're the ones who keep everything efficient. They're like, ?Why are we doing this?? And in some workplaces, they're very valued, and their constant questioning is considered important to the mission of the organisation, and there's a lot of tolerance for that. In other workplaces, there's much less tolerance. Questioners often say they aren't considered team players, or they're considered stubborn or difficult or a bottleneck because they need more explanations before they proceed, and they can drain or overwhelm people with their questions. Questioners can also experience ?analysis paralysis?. This is when they want more and more information before they make a decision or move forward, but sometimes we have to act without perfect information, where it's more important to make any decision than the best decision. And so the people around Questioner have to use strategies?to help them get over analysis paralysis.



Rebels resist all expectations - outer and inner alike - they want to do what they want to do in their own way in their own time, and if you ask or tell a Rebel to do something, they're very likely to resist. Rebels are tricky to deal with. What works with Rebels is to think about your identity - ?I want to be seen as a strong, effective, creative, productive part of this office; I don't want to go to a staff meeting on time, I don't want to hand in this stupid report, I hate doing these presentations, but I'm going to do them because if I want to be seen as someone who's strong and contributing and to be taken seriously, these are the things I need to do. This is what I want.? Also for Rebels, it helps to think about information, consequences, choice. This is most helpful if you're dealing with a Rebel - what's the information that's needed, what are the consequences of each decision that can be made, and it's up to the Rebel to decide what they want to do. Rebels are painfully connected to their authentic self, and this can be very exciting to be around. They're great at thinking outside the box; it doesn't bother them if something is against the rules; and they might choose to follow the rules because they think it's the right thing to do or sensible, but they're choosing to do that - they're not doing it because they're told to. Often Rebels do well in sales, where it's like, ?Whatever it takes...? Whereas an Upholder might say, ?but you haven't followed the rule exactly, and what about the paperwork, and the deadline I asked you to meet?? - that's tougher for them. It's very difficult for people of the other three tendencies to understand why a Rebel is so resistant. In certain circumstances it can be very challenging to work with - or for - a Rebel. For instance, in the situation of a Questioner working for a Rebel boss - the employee might say, ?Why are we doing this?? and the boss is like, ?Let's take the day off and brainstorm and come up with a new plan.? And that's maddening to the Questioner. To them, a Rebel seems very emotion-driven - ?This is what I feel like doing; this is what I'm choosing.? So if you are a Rebel or dealing with a Rebel, you need to think about this sense of identity; the sense of information, consequence, choice. And you need to remember that a Rebel can do anything they want to do; they can do anything they choose to do. So everything for the Rebel should be framed in terms of ?this is what you want; this is what you choose? - then they can do it.



?SHOULD WE CONSIDER OUR TENDENCY WHEN CHOOSING OUR CAREER? ?I think just about every career choice could be done by all four tendencies in their own way, but I definitely think your tendency is going to influence the kind of thing you find satisfying. Many people in client-based businesses or services say they'd find it helpful to be an Obliger, where they'd be happy to do anything for their client. A Questioner once said to me, ?Now that I know I'm a Questioner, I understand why I hate my job... I'm a tax accountant and driven mad by all these regulations that don't make sense.? So knowing your tendency might help you see whether a job is a good fit, but most things can be done in a lot of different ways.?

WORKING WITH OTHER TENDENCIES ?It's very hard not to think that other people see the world the way you do, and so often we don't work as effectively as we can with other tendencies because we don't understand how we can better support or communicate with them. So as an Upholder, I wouldn't understand why Obligers need accountability - now I do; and my husband is a Questioner, and once I was filling out a form and rang him to ask for his work address, and he said, ?Why??


You see, I would just answer, I don't need to know why - if you're asking me, obviously, there's a reason! But he's not going to meet even the tiniest expectation if he doesn't understand why. Once you see the crucial piece, it's easy to see how you can fit it in. Like, ?Why is this person struggling?? Well, maybe they need stricter deadlines. The tendencies give you ideas about how you get certain people to do more.?

?IS IT POSSIBLE EACH OF US IS A BIT OF ONE TENDENCY AND ANOTHER? ?I do believe that everybody fits into a core tendency, but each of us is a little bit of a Questioner in that if we see something that's just pointless... And we're all a little bit of an Obliger - when someone important to us needs us to do something, we'll do it even if it means giving up something we want to do for ourselves. And each of us is a Rebel in that when we feel too controlled, we'll push back. It's about what your overall mood is in the world - what's your instinctive reaction. If I ask you to do something, is the first thing you'd say is ?Ok, fine?? Is it ?Why should I??? Or is it ?You're not the boss of me!?? It's also true that people will tip one way or another. I'm an Upholder who tips to Questioner, or some Upholders tip to Obligers. If you look at the four interlocking circles [see], you'll see those are the flanking tendencies. So you could be in your core tendency, but you might overlap with another, and that will change the way your tendency comes out.?

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (Two Roads, approx €17) is out now.

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